What would you do if you were pushed into a role you didn’t want or feel ready for? If you’re Kate Quirke, you’ll turn the challenge into a success and a learning opportunity that will shape your career. In this Women in Leadership interview, the Alcidion CEO shares her leadership journey and her lessons learned.
When Kate Quirke was unceremoniously pushed into a management role she didn’t want, she was incensed. She didn’t think the new position was a good fit. Nor did she think she was ready for it – and told her mentor as much.
The new job would force Quirke to step out of her comfort zone in the health tech industry; to take on a loss-making Energy Australia account in an all-male environment.
But her mentor wasn’t interested in nurturing her self doubt, and insisted that she step up. “I remember him saying, ‘I’m not actually suggesting this, I’m telling you this is what you’re going to be doing’,” she recalls.
Now CEO of ASX-listed health tech company Alcidion, and the only woman on the All Tech Index, Quirke is grateful to her mentor for pushing her. In the 18-months that she was in the role, the account went from making a significant loss to a $7m profit, an achievement of which she remains proud.
“It was a really hard job, but in that role I learned more than I probably ever had in my career, and it stayed with me forever.”
Paying mentorship forward
While Quirke didn’t necessarily appreciate how her mentor handled the new role, she did appreciate the sentiment; that he believed in her and wanted to see her progress.
Quirke now takes great pleasure in progressing other people’s careers, particularly seeing them step up. “Some of the people on my leadership team have come up right from junior consultants in the business,” she said. “It is such great joy to me, and maybe it’s because people did it for me that I know how valuable it is.”
Seek a mentor in the business or your industry who can help you identify and build on your strengths, including identifying the types of roles that would play to, and build on, your skill set.
Quirke makes a point of fostering women into leadership roles. At Alcidion, women hold 60% of executive roles and nearly 35% of board roles, including the company secretary. She would like to see more male leaders cultivate female role models in their business. “It is better for them and for the outcomes of their companies,” she says.
Embedding leadership at a young age
As a 12 year old, Quirke was pack leader for her Girl Guides unit. “I took them camping, ensuring tents were properly lashed and food was cooked safely,” she said. The experience helped build both her confidence and resilience, part of the skills repertoire required by all leaders.
Given many women do not aspire to management roles, but tend to fall into these jobs when opportunities arise, or as in Quirke’s experience, when pushed, she would like to see schools embrace emotional intelligence programs for girls.
“We need to instill that confidence, and I think it comes from learning to cope when things go wrong,” Quirke says. “From being able to put your opinion out there and dealing with criticism, or dealing with your idea not being taken forward. I’d like to see us teach girls about that in primary school – and in university.”
Empathetic cultures cultivate success
Asked about the importance of company culture in allowing women to thrive in leadership roles, Quirke’s answer is unequivocal. “Hugely important,” she said. Nonetheless, she believes in diversity in general, not just for women. “I’m a strong advocate for diversity of thought, diversity of approach.”
Quirke also believes diversity thrives in an empathetic culture. “No matter how many males and females you have, you need to have an empathetic culture, one that is open to allowing people to question the status quo,” she said. “And one that plays to people’s strengths.”
Certainly, it is also a culture that does not tolerate sexism or discrimination of any kind. Quirke was subjected to some particularly challenging sexism in her 20s. “I came up against my fair share of misogynistic behaviour. Inappropriate nicknames, jokes and innuendo were par for the course,” she said.
One CEO was so abhorrent, she seriously considered leaving her role. “He was degrading, extremely rude, he’d comment on your dress, he would single women out in staff meetings.” A colleague later took him to court for discrimination.
Quirke notes that most women of her generation have similar stories. “There’s no doubt those kinds of things would be called out more now I believe, certainly in healthcare IT you wouldn’t see it,” she said.
Balancing life and work
As a working mother of two children, Quirke is conscious of the pressures that having a career can have on families and tries to be a good role model to the Alcidion team.
“I try to set the right example in the business, and I’m mature enough to know that I won’t get this chance with my children again,” she says.
In an odd way, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a blessing, giving her the opportunity to experience the benefits of working from home. In turn, this opened the doors to change at Alcidion.
“We have just formalised working from home three days a week, because we had this extraordinary opportunity to understand that it works,” she said.
Quirke believes the arrangement will provide more flexibility for employees with caring commitments, in particular women, increasing their chances of progressing their careers.
“If a customer needs you to be available at certain hours, and work flexibility allows you to carve out time for both the customer and your family, then go for it,” she says.
If more flexibility will help both your career and your family, talk to your manager. Pitch a case that demonstrates how the business will benefit from improved work life balance policies.
Support at home
Quirke also has the benefit of a supportive partner. Because her role as CEO requires a great deal of travel, she and her husband agreed that he would be a stay-at-home father. He was in a position to make this decision, and it works well for their family.
Quirke recognises that for most couples making decisions like these, it usually comes down to who is earning the higher salary. “I hate to say it but it almost always ends up that the female is not earning the larger amount.”
Nonetheless, she would like to see more credit given to the men who down tools to care for their children. “I think we’re getting better at it, calling it out and saying ‘what an amazing thing’,” she says.
Continuing to learn and grow
Looking back on her career, Quirke is very proud of relationships that she has developed in the healthcare industry, and of her reputation to deliver on what she says she is going to do. “I’m actually really proud of what I’ve achieved post Alcidion acquiring the company (MKM Health) of which I was a part owner and becoming CEO of Alcidion, a listed ASX company,” she says.
Clearly, Quirke’s can-do attitude coupled with the empathetic culture she has built is having a positive effect, because Alcidion is going from strength to strength. The company’s health informatics solutions and products are now in over 300 hospitals across Australia, the UK and New Zealand, and approaching 70,000 active users.
She is a role model for what women can achieve when fostered into leadership roles. Nonetheless, like the next generation of girls that Quirke wants to see educated in leadership skills, she too continues to learn. “I’ve had to learn so much and I’m still learning every day,” she said. “It’s been a fabulous ride, really.”
Kate Quirke’s Key Leadership Lessons Learned
Top image: Alcidion CEO Kate Quirke (3rd from the right) with her executive team. Images © Alcidion.
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA